Sharmila Tagore, who turned 74 on 8 December, has been a trailblazer of her field, and the bikini has nothing to do with it.
Women in India tend to be identified through their relationships — even if you are Sharmila Tagore. Headlines have called her: Rabindranath Tagore’s kin, Tiger Pataudi’s wife, Saif Ali Khan’s mother, Kareena Kapoor’s mother-in-law, and even Taimur’s grandmom.
But Sharmila Tagore, who turned 74 Saturday, is a trailblazer beyond such lazy adjectives. No, not because she was the first Indian actress to don a bikini (An Evening in Paris, 1967) but because of her choice of films, her illustrious career, and for being an icon for women.
Devi of films
Sharmila Tagore’s debut film was directed by Satyajit Ray. Breaking into the big world of films at the young age of 13, Sharmila Tagore played Aparna in Apur Sansar (1959) — the last film in Ray’s legendary Apu trilogy.
Aparna is married to Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) hurriedly after a strange turn of events — they start falling in love slowly but surely, but then she dies at childbirth, leaving their son with a distraught and disillusioned Apu.
The film has been frequently listed among the greatest films of all time and gave its actors instant stardom. Even former US president John F. Kennedy went to catch a screening of the film at Dupont Theatre, Washington DC, in 1961.
In 1960, Sharmila Tagore was cast as the lead in Ray’s Devi, which went on to achieve cult status. Dayamoyee’s (Sharmila’s character) ageing father-in-law dreams that she is a reincarnation of goddess Kali, but the story turns into a tragedy when she herself starts believing that she is a goddess. Devi was a commentary on blind belief and religion.
Finding her own
Although she continued doing some of her best work with Satyajit Ray, Sharmila realised that, to come into her own, she would need to step out from the shadow of the master. “If I hadn’t broken away from him, all my life I would have been in his shadow,” she once said in an interview. “Now whatever I’ve achieved I’ve achieved on my own.”
Sharmila Tagore’s debut Hindi film, Shakti Samanta’s Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), made her a household name. The film was a box office hit, and its songs, including Deewana Hua Badal and Tareef Karoon Kya Uski, made their way into the nation’s eternal humming list.
Samanta would also direct Sharmila in An Evening In Paris, which featured the bikini shot that took the country by storm. Criticism poured in and Sharmila Tagore made the conscious choice of changing her image in Bollywood.
“The glamorous image will work for the moment,” she said. “But you won’t remain young all your life. And if you want longevity in your profession, you have to be able to do all kinds of roles.”
And indeed she played all kinds of roles — from Aditi in Nayak (1966) to Vandana in Aradhana (1969) and Chanda/Kajli in Mausam (1975) to Kinnu in Mississippi Masala (1991), the latter also starring Hollywood star Denzel Washington.
Trailblazer in life as in art
Today, Sharmila Tagore is not just an established actress, but also a regular at literature and film festivals (something she still credits Satyajit Ray for).
When she started acting in the 1960s, a career in films was seen negatively, especially for women. But her father, Gitindranath Tagore, encouraged her to give films her all.
She would try to shoot only during her summer vacations, but the clash between her education and career eventually forced her to drop out of college and settle in Mumbai. “My college principal wanted me to choose either films or academics,” Sharmila Tagore said, “I pleaded that I could manage both but she didn’t relent. I had a big fight with her.”
It was around 1965, when Sharmila Tagore was 21, that she met cricketer ‘Tiger’ Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, who is said to have wooed her by buying her a refrigerator and proposed to her on a rainy day in Paris.
It was speculated when they first got together that the romance would fizzle out. It didn’t – Sharmila Tagore and Tiger Pataudi were married for almost half a century.
After marriage, Sharmila Tagore controversially changed her name to Begum Ayesha Sultana Khan. “When we decided to get married, we didn’t even know the words secular or communal — we were in the throes of young love; we didn’t know what the fuss around us was all about,” she said.
After his death in 2011, she described their chemistry in the foreword to a biography published in 2013: “He was, even at that young age, the same person he was till the end of his life — mature, calm, responsible, with the strongest sense of self. I, on the other hand, was impulsive and quite unschooled in the ways of the world. I guess we complemented each other.”
Over the years, Sharmila Tagore has served on the board of several film festivals, including Cannes in 2009 as an international competition jury member.
She led India’s Central Board of Film Certification from 2004 and 2011. In an interview in 2006, Sharmila said she was against censorship, but thought India wasn’t ready for it to be removed altogether.
Sharmila Tagore, a Padma Bhushan awardee, is a powerhouse. A woman who grew up under the spotlight and came into her own.